John DeMain began his 20th season as music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend by leading that orchestra in three pieces that showcased its quality.
The orchestra itself was the guest star of its own concert. It proved adequate to the job, especially concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, whose work on the numerous violin solos in Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade Symphony Suite" was as beautiful as any I've ever heard. She always brings honor to the orchestra, but this rendition was something special.
The theme of "Scheherazade" is that Sultan Shahryar plans to put his wives to death because he is convinced they are unfaithful. Princess Scheherazade distracts him by spinning a new tale every night for 1,001 nights. Greenholtz played the role of Princess Scheherazade, telling the sweet, haunting stories through her violin. It was absolutely stirring.
In addition to "Scheherazade," the orchestra played Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring Suite" and Richard Wagner's "Prelude" and "Liebested" from "Tristan und Isolde."
Neither of them is the raucous, pull-out-all-stops music that usually brings people to their feet, but each of them was slow and sweet enough to let the audience appreciate the individual musicians playing them.
One of the things DeMain has done as music director is to forge the MSO into a high-quality regional orchestra. We all know that. What became evident at the weekend performances is that DeMain has also turned the orchestra into a source of civic pride for its patrons.
Concertgoers didn't just applaud individual orchestra members; they whistled and cheered as they applauded. This was our musical team and we reacted to it as we would to pop stars or gifted athletes.
The orchestra will return to its practice of bringing in guest artists next month. Pianist Philippi Bianconi will make his fifth appearance with the MSO Oct. 18, 19 and 20. This weekend's performance was reserved for our own artists, and they proved worthy of the honor.